a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

What Do I Wear on My Head?-A Cross-Post

Posted on: February 21, 2015

When I was still in the process of converting to Judaism I found Jew in the City and her post about why Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair. The vlog didn’t speak to me. I don’t have a husband and I don’t find hair to be particularly sexual. Yet, I was intrigued and clicked my way through her channel to Wrapunzel to hajibis. All the while fascinated and in awe at the reverence to religion these women exhibited. And while I loved them all (and watched them ALL) I still couldn’t quite picture myself converting to Orthodox Judaism and because it was clear that Reform Jews didn’t cover, I shelved it.

As I started to meet women who wore pants and wore head covering I started to ask questions. It was this time that I realized that covering wasn’t (or didn’t have to be about a sexual thing, but rather a connection to G-d and the realization that putting something on my head could, perhaps, remind me that there was something above me. I reconsidered the idea and have tentatively decided that when M and I tie the knot that I will cover my head both wigs (who doesn’t want straight hair they don’t have to straighten) scarves.

Below is the piece I wrote for RitualWell about head covering.

A few days ago while wasting a rainy Seattle day indoors, I flipped to E!, one of my guilty pleasure channels. The show Christina Milian Turned Up was on. It is not something I normally watch, but I was intrigued when Liz Milian, Christina’s younger sister, mentioned Judaism. She was preparing for the rabbi to come to her house to help her kasher the home she shares with her family.

I was, of course, instantly drawn and quickly Googled my way to her Facebook and Instagram pages which I am now enthusiastically enjoying.

It is not just that Liz Milian is a woman of color in the public eye converting to Orthodox Judaism, it’s that she’s doing so in a real, passionate, and committed way.

I’ve always been drawn to Orthodox Judaism; there’s a level of commitment to mitzvot, to be sure, but what really piques my interest is the tradition, joy in Jewish life and practice, and the communal norms and expectations. There are aspects of Orthodox Judaism, specifically hair covering and ideas of modest dressing, that are intriguing and seemingly easy mitzvot for me to introduce into my life.

In Orthodox Jewish communities it’s expected that when a woman is married that she will cover her hair. What she covers her hair with varies from community to community. Some favor long, amazing (albeit expensive) wigs, while others favor shorter wigs and still other communities use scarves and hats. These head coverings mark a woman as married, and it’s also presumed that when a woman (or man for that matter) wears something on their head that they’re probably a bit more religious than the person who’s head remains naked. This presumption may or not be true, but it’s been my experience that a person who covers their hair and dresses modestly is likely to be living a more halakhically observant Jewish life.

So what happens when you’re a Jew like me—a Jew who doesn’t identify with any particular religious denomination and instead picks and chooses?

Read more here. 

Who is a Jew of Color?

Posted on: February 19, 2015

PopChassidA few years ago I sent out a tweet looking for Jews of Color for a project I wanted to pursue. I got a Twitter response from Elad Nehori, the author of one of my favorite blogs, Pop Chassid. He asked, I think I’m a Jew of Color, am I? And I replied, if you think you’re a person of Color, and identify as such in the world, then you’re a Jew of Color. He published a piece down the line about how his skin color always makes him feel like an other which you should read. Feeling like an other simply for the color or hue of your skin, is a good indication that you are a Jew of Color.

Specifically speaking, a Jew of Color is someone who in non-Jewish environments would be considered a person of Color. Someone who is black, African American, bi-racial, Asian, Indian, Latin or of bi-racial or multi-ethnic heritage. While Mizrahi Jews and Sephardic Jews may not be Ashkenazi, I don’t think that most would consider themselves to be people of Color, therefore it is my opinion that they are not Jews of Color. Side note, if you are Mizrahi or Sephardic and consider yourself to be a Jew of Color, please comment below!

Lastly, if you’re stopped before entering a synagogue, if your Jewish identity has even been questioned, if you’ve had a difficult time finding a Jewish partner, if you’ve had a difficult time getting your children into religious schools, if you’re asked if you were raised Jewish, if you’re constantly asked to tell “your story”, if you hear, “you don’t look Jewish“, if you’re mistaken for the help rather than a member of a Jewish community, if you’re a member of a bi-racial relationship and it’s assumed that you have converted for your partner -you’re a Jew of Color. It should be noted that with the exception of religious school-I have experienced all of these things.

Jews of Color have always been and will always be members of the Jewish community, and while I am a Jew of Color who chose Judaism, historically Jews have always been multi-ethnic and multiracial. For the Torah tells us so.

So how is it that when someone thinks of who a Jew is or what a Jew looks like my face is the last image that comes to mind?

 

The Vlog is Back!

Posted on: February 14, 2015

In this vlog I ask the questions: How is too much diversity a bag thing? Also, do you know a literary agent.

 

Our Stories Our Voices

Posted on: February 13, 2015

My friend, Michael Twitty, writes a completely perfect response to the balagan of a new series, koshersoul on Lifetime TV. 

I read his words and felt his anger and frustration because it seems that we Jews of Color, Jews of Color who are working towards Jewish Diversity Awareness, recognition and a seat at the table lift our voices they are often silenced by well meaning Jewish white folks, networks, agents, and the broader Jewish community as a whole.

Well, we won’t remain silent. We have and will always be a part of the Jewish community. We are not a joke. We are not a pawn. We are not the speck of brown on your lily white calendar that let’s you say that you did something diverse. Our voices are unique, our voices are loud, our voices are soft, and our voices will be heard.

 

michael twitty

Michael Twitty at the Torah. Copyright photo by Jerome Colt

I was mortified. It’s official, the thing I have railed against in my crusade for culinary and cultural justice had come for me: my name, established long before someone got the bright idea for a merger of ethnic stereotypes, has been compromised by your “sense” of “koshersoul.”

Appropriation—the big word that seems to have been repeatedly hurled from London to Tokyo (thank ya I-G-G-Y)—un-reciprocated and unwelcome borrowing, or if you will outright theft of the cultural and artistic production of “others” seems too obvious to even whisper here so I will leave it up to my readers to decide whether you in bad faith decided to nab my moniker for your own purposes or if you just carelessly decided to ignore my work when naming your program.

The “others” I mention above are we the people who in our struggles to make this a more perfect Union, are often marginalized and robbed of our ability to rise and achieve by being denied the same platform as those appropriating our creations. There is a difference between respectful quoting, acknowledging sources and origins and sharing words, genres, styles and modes on the one hand and lifting them wholesale and using them in ways that diminish and demean originators.

The promo trailer for “Kosher Soul” shows a classic collision of cultures- and who could be more different than “the Blacks” and “the Jews?” What could be funnier than a Black man passing out from the sacred ritual of hatafat-dam-brit (blood drop circumcision)? Ooh his baseball cap says “Kosher” in thug motif! Her mother is skeptical, the Jews and their customs are so bizarre that it’s a guilty pleasure you can’t wait to shmear your eyes with. Goodness gracious glory be to Hashem–this TV show sho’ do “look so funny.” (How easy the sarcasm flows…)

 

keep reading. 

If you ask any convert to Judaism, they will likely tell you that as daunting as the conversion process can sometimes be, actually being a Jew can be harder that becoming one.

Picking a rabbi and a community to anchor my conversion was the first step. After several months of shul shopping and ongoing conversations with rabbis about conversion, I settled on the rabbi that made me cry when I left her office. She posed hard questions about my commitment to Judaism, and challenged me to think long and hard about how my relationship with my partner might change after my conversion. After I attended my first conversion class, I knew that I’d made the right decision.

On August 17th, 2012 at around ten o’clock in the morning on the upper west side of Manhattan, I became a Jew. After years of spiritual searching followed by a year of Jewish study, the work of becoming Jewish was finally complete. I destinctly remember laughing while in the warm waters of the Upper West Side Mikvah. It was amusing to be bouncing up and down naked in the mikvah water before a woman I’d never met. It was invigorating to hear the shouts of my rabbis and friends outside the doors of the mikvah room everytime the mikvah lady, Gita, shouted, “kasher!” As the days after my conversion melted away into weeks and months and finally years, the routines of being Jewish and actually considering what that means in my life took hold. I felt restless and unmotivated and sometimes a spiritual void in a place I once found so much connection.

Keep reading on Ritualwell. 

On erev Shabbat last week I gave the below (sermon?) on MLK Day, #blacklivesmatter and Jewish responsibility. As I sat on the bimah with the rabbinical staff at Congregation Rodeph Sholom I started to feel uneasy. The congregation, from what I could see from my vantage point, was comprised of mostly white adults in their mid-thirties to mid-sixties. I wondered if my message would be heard and if it would be understood. I also wondered if they did hear me, would the words that I had to say “stick.”

I’ve been fretting over the evening since I stepped out of the synagogue into the cool (okay really effing cold) night that erev Shabbat with some of my friends; three Jews of Color, one who knows me and my point of view well.

“You were really … nice,” she said taking a long pause before saying the word nice.

“Nice?” I asked her as we walked down W83rd Street

“Yeah, nice. You could’ve been a lot more direct, you said everything you needed to say in the nicest way possible.”

This friend and I agreed that for the audience my message did it’s job and an email I received from the rabbi and friend who invited me agreed. The words that I said that night were powerful and effective. There’s already buzzing in the synagogue about “what’s next” and that makes me happy.

MLK Day, The Civil Rights Movement and Jewish Responsibility 

Read the rest of this entry »

Shabbat in NYC-MLK Service

Posted on: January 9, 2015

I’m so excited to be returning to the congregation I converted at for MLK Shabbat next Erev Shabbat!

If you’re in the NYC Area, it would be amazing to see your smiling and supportive faces at Congregation Rodeph Sholom 

I’m actually really, really nervous. I studied speech and theater in high school and took some classes in college, but I always get nervous right before addressing a group of people. Especially when the addressing sometimes difficult subject matter. But, it’s important and I’m so thrilled and nervous to be doing it!

Hope to see you there and Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

When I walk in the world I am seen first as black and second as a woman. I don’t necessarily “present” as a lesbian and when I identify myself as a Jew, I’m met with disbelief. Once the shock of being a black, lesbian Jew has settled people feel entitled to my story and want me to tell it to them. As a friend recently posted in a blog I’ll cross-post later, it’s exhausting.

It’s exhausting being the black Jew reminding white Jews to stop being racist. It’s exhausting to call out people on their crap. And it’s exhausting infuriating for folks to demand I tell them “story”. 

As a Jew of Color, I knew that I would be faced with adversity from within my own community. Before converting I read the book From Ghetto to Ghetto by Ernest H. Adams, I spoke with other JOCs and I prepared myself for an uphill battle of ignorance, and yes, racism. I don’t think that all Jews are racist. In fact, I think that most Jews consider themselves to be, and are, quite liberal and open-minded. But liberal open-mindedness doesn’t mean that subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism and assumptions based on race exist.

We have a lot of work to do as a Jewish Community (here comes a plug for The Jewish Multiracial Network). As Ilana Kaufman points out in the piece below Federations are pouring millions of dollars into research on how to engage Jews, but why are they not also reaching out to work with Jews of Color and organizations like JMN to help them talk with, engage with and realize a Jewish community model that includes Jews of Color and Multiracial Jewish families.

Ilana’s piece is outstanding and thought provoking for sure, but like all pieces I write or share having to do with race in relation to Judaism I ask those of you who are white and Jewish to ask questions of your leadership, push for more inclusive programing, invite organizations in to help your communities be the best and most inclusive communities they can be.

by Ilana Kaufman

It was early fall and my friend’s daughter Gabi had just started a new religious school program. Gabi was excited; bunches of friends from her public school, and piles of pals from Jewish summer camp were also in her religious school classes. Gabi’s mom, a member of the religious school’s Shul arrived a few minutes before 6:00 pm to pick up her daughter. Swarms of kids and parents milled about looking for one another. Some of the teachers were also out and strolling, trying to meet parents for the first time.
“Are you Gabi’s Mom?” sailed a voice from across the courtyard and over the heads of dozens and dozens of other parents in between the teacher and the destination of the teacher’s question. My friend looked around. “Who is this lady yelling at?” she wondered. Again, from across the expanse came the question, “Excuse me. Are you Gabi’s Mom?” My friend ignored the teacher. Sure, she was Gabi’s mom, but she didn’t know this woman, and was perplexed by the teacher’s approach to meeting her for the first time. Yelling across a courtyard seemed a bit rude to Gabi’s mom, and didn’t exactly make her want to respond to the teacher. There was Gabi’s mom – the only African American adult in the courtyard, looking for her daughter who also happened to be Black. And the teacher, using visual cues made an assumption about who belonged to whom. In this case, the teacher happened to be right. But what if the teacher’s race-based assumption had been wrong? What if my friend had been someone else’s mom?

Keep reading on E. Jewish Philosophy

Please note that when I say “the Problem with Jews” I’m trying to wake you up, call attention to something, make you think. If you continue to read and still don’t “get” it and want to kvetch in the comments, please do so politely. Otherwise, your comment won’t get approved. 

selma-movieI haven’t seen the movie Selma yet, but I can’t wait to. I remember the first time I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King. I was probably around 7 or 8 and my parents introduced us to King and the Civil Rights Movement through a picture book I read with my mother. I flipped the pages and listened to my mother’s soothing voice as she said words like “Jim Crow” “Racism” and “Civil Rights”. And as I looked at the pages, I realized a few things; it was the first time I saw a person who looked like me in the pages of a book I was reading. Even my picture Bible showed pales skinned Egyptians (still happening almost 30 years later.) The second was that it was the first time a book gave me a peek into the life my mother lived in the Jim Crow South.

“Mama, why does that water fountain say ‘whites only’? “What does ‘Colored’ mean?” “Was it like that when  you were a girl?” “Why?”

Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas Missing II

Posted on: December 24, 2014

Now that Hanukkah is behind us, well almost, and it’s Christmas Eve I’m experiencing a new kind of Christmas missing. Which has less to do with being Jewish in a city that’s more difficult to be a Jew, and more to do with memories of Christmas’ past, my family, my sister and feeling so far away from the people I love the most.

Brutal honesty, I, like nearly everyone, took my family and specifically my sister for granted. When we were little girls and we would quarrel try to kill one another my father would always have us make up and remind us that we only had one sister. We’d scowl at each other in still simmering anger and I would think, G-d I wish I had another sister, cause this one sure was sucky. After those fights, I’m sure Patrice felt the same way.

Our high school years were slightly tumultuous. I entered two years before her and had established myself and she showed up my junior year as the annoying younger sister. It wasn’t until I left for college that we actually became friends. And when I returned after freshman year we actually became really good friends. I watched as she experimented with drugs and when those experiments became habitual and then a full-blown addiction we drifted apart again.

And when we’d fight and say incredibly ugly things to one another during these dark times of our relationship my father would still remind me that I only had one sister and that I should treat her as such. Except now we were adults and my simmering anger was steeped in worry and a feeling of helplessness. As her older sister, I felt responsibility for the woman she was now and wondered if I had been nicer to her when we were girls and teens that things would some how have turned out differently.

Last Christmas I joined my parents and the boys in Florida for warm weather and family time. I spoke to Patrice on the phone on Christmas day and like I’d done so many times I mumbled, “I love you.” to her sort of out of obligation because that’s what you say to your loved ones on Christmas Day. I was angry with her, of course, and wished naively, as I’d done for the past few years, that she’d just snap out of it. But, every psychologist, doctor and expert in addiction knows that an addict can’t just “snap out of it.”

It was infuriating to hear at the time of her death and at her memorial, but I truly believe that my sister is in a better place and while it would be great to call her tomorrow and to force an angry “I love you” out because it’s Christmas and that’s what you do at Christmas, I can say it to her from my heart and know that wherever her soul is in which ever plane it exists, that she not only hears it, but feels it.

So, it’s Christmas Eve and I’m here in Seattle. Tomorrow I’ll talk to the boys, which seems to make me both cry and laugh at the same time this season. I’ll talk to my parents, which will also be hard. And, or but, most importantly my I loves you will be filled with meaning and purpose.

To my readers who celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very happy one. I hope you have an amazing day filled with meaning. Don’t forget to tell your family members and friends that you love them, even when it’s hard.

Christmas Missing Part One

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